Dear EarthTalk: Are as many cats and dogs being euthanized these days as back in the 1970s and 1980s when indiscriminate breeding led to explosions in pet populations?
— Mary H., Knox, TN
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the leading non-profit devoted to animal welfare, reports that in the 1970s American shelters euthanized between 12 and 20 million cats and dogs every year at a time when there were 67 million pets in U.S. homes. According to statistics gleaned from the Asilomar Accords, which tracks animal shelter care and euthanasia numbers, U.S. shelters today euthanize three to four million animals, while there are more than 135 million cats and dogs in American homes.
“This enormous decline in euthanasia numbers—from around 25 percent of American dogs and cats euthanized every year to about three percent—represents substantial progress,” reports HSUS. “We will make still greater progress by working together to strike at the roots of animal overpopulation.”
These numbers are only estimates as there is no centralized reporting protocol for shelters. However, the Asilomar Accords method is gaining momentum as a standard for more accurately tracking animal shelter care and euthanasia numbers; it posts annual statistics for some 150 different U.S. shelters on its website.
And what exactly are the roots of the problem? Foremost is irresponsible breeding—pet owners failing to get their animals spayed or neutered, leading to unwanted offspring. Some 35 percent of U.S. pet owners do not spay or neuter their pets, despite increasing public awareness about the pet overpopulation issue.
Another factor is low adoption rates: Only 20 percent of the 17 million Americans that get a new pet each year opt for a shelter pet; the vast majority buys from pet stores, breeders, or through other private arrangements. And six to eight million pets are given up to shelters or rescue groups every year for one reason or another, leaving these organizations with many more animals than they can place in homes.
Beyond these factors, HSUS also cites our society’s “disposal pet” ethos, whereby owners are quick to relinquish their pets for any number of reasons. The majority of shelter pets are not overflowing litters of puppies and kittens, but companion animals turned in by their owners. “To solve this problem, we would need to effect a cultural change in which every individual fully considers all of the responsibilities and consequences of pet ownership before adopting, and then makes a lifetime commitment to their pet.”
The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy is a coalition of eleven of America’s foremost animal welfare organizations concerned with the issue of unwanted pets in the United States. The Council and its partner groups, including HSUS, work to promote responsible pet ownership and reduce pet overpopulation through public education, legislation and support for sterilization programs.
As to what individuals can do, HSUS recommends spaying or neutering their dogs and cats, adopting from shelters or rescue groups, and considering all the ramifications of pet ownership before deciding to take on a cat or dog in the first place.